Do Potential Customers Really Want Your Product?

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Since the 1960s, Everett Rogers introduced the concept of adoption-of-innovation, there have been some excellent examples of what works and what doesn’t. (He applied it to the adoption of corn by farmers; I used it to explain the use, and non-use of birth control by teenagers as part of my doctoral dissertation.) This week I used it to discuss two electric car companies – Tesla’s success and Better Place’s failure — an observation also noted by Greg Satell in his Digital Tonto blog. Peter Drucker was right: the key to any business is creating a (profitable) customer.

Over a decade ago, Shai Agassi led a team to create a pioneer electric care company – Better Place. Recognizing the limit of battery charges, he envisioned a world where people could drive in relatively inexpensive electric cars, by adopting the idea of “gasoline-filling stations” and creating “battery switching stations”. Drivers would drive into the station on the way to their destination and it would remove the old battery and switch it for a fully charged battery quickly. He raised money to test the idea in countries and states with defined travel limits (e.g. Israel, Hawaii and Denmark) and build enough stations so local people could travel.

However, it failed because the business model didn’t take into account the need of customers – partners and end-user) for this venture. The goal was to have a car company manufacture and sell cars to-end-users who would get the batteries from Better Place. This meant that the car manufacturer was not selling a totally workable vehicle! This presented a problem for insurance companies and discouraged car manufacturers from investing in building vehicles that weren’t self-sufficient.

As a result only one company (Renault) agreed to manufacture the car and less than 2000 small cars were produced. Most people didn’t want them, so they didn’t rush to buy, and the company failed.

There are two analogies worth noting. Almost two decades ago, Webvan raised billions of dollars to create a food delivery service where people could order on-line and have it delivered within 30 minutes. The company invested in warehouse infrastructure, when it should have spent more time understanding customers’ buying patterns. By creating no minimum size purchases with almost on-demand delivery, almost empty delivery trucks were delivering unprofitable purchases. The company closed within a few years. (Its operation was folded into Amazon!)

Similarly, TATA, an Indian conglomerate realized that families with 3-4 people were taking motorcycles to work and school – creating a safety hazard for the passengers. They created a small, basic feature care called the Nano; it was slightly more expensive than a motorcycle (e.g., $2500 vs. $1800), and provide safer transportation. In its first year it only captured 10% of the anticipated customers! Why? It offered almost no “comfort-features” (e.g., glove compartments). Since then it has raised its price almost annually adding more features…and still is failing. One reason is that other companies started offering cars people liked and bought, even though they cost $6000+.

In contrast, Elon Musk took a customer-focused, adoption-of-innovation approach with Tesla. He did not focus on the mass market, but the limited number of early adopters: people who love new ideas, can afford them, and when satisfied serve as role models (e.g., celebrities and high net worth individuals committed to showcasing sustainability). His first model, Roadster, was designed to attract this audience; he priced it at $100,000, which enabled him to listen to customers, and improve it for future growth. Second, because batteries have limited distances, he focused on customers who already had another (gas) car that they could use for long distances or who only needed it for short distances. Now, Tesla offering a model for “the rest of us”, priced, like GM’s Bolt, at under $40,000.

In sum, to develop an innovation and have it successfully adopted, you need to address the needs of all the initial customers/partners. Never lose sight on the business goal: to create a profitable customer. What’s your experience? Share it.